Article Feb 3, 2016

Raising courageous kids

Several years ago, one of our children had developed a pattern of lying whenever he was caught doing something wrong. My wife, Judi, asked me, “What are we going to do about this?” I immediately retorted, “I’m going to ratchet up the discipline and put a stop to this!” Then she said, “Sure, we have to discipline him for it, but what positive steps can we take to address it? I think he lies because he lacks courage. Why don’t we focus on positively training him toward courage and bravery?” After I had contemplated how much more perceptive her thoughts were than mine, I was struck that what she was saying made perfect sense. So we began a plan to teach and train him toward courage and bravery, and we saw quick results.

Judi’s thoughts were in line with what C.S. Lewis said about courage when he wrote, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” You would think that books on parenting would be replete with helpful information on how to cultivate courage in your children. And for Christian parenting books that are at least 50 years old, that is true. But in recent Christian parenting books, raising courageous children is rarely mentioned. In fact, good manners, mild behavior, good grades, and above all safety, have become the preeminent contemporary parenting virtues.

“I would rather learn that you perished at sea than that you dishonored the missionary society you are going to serve,” are the words William Knibb’s mother shouted from the window as the twenty-one-year-old left his home in Kettering, England, and headed toward the port to board a ship for Jamaica. Knibb said the words of his mother instilled in him the courage to fiercely preach the gospel and fight the slave trade during his tenure in Jamaica as a missionary. As I read older biographies of men who left for war, those kinds of sentiments were almost commonplace. Mother’s would tell their sons, “I would rather you die with courage on the battlefield than for you to live as a coward.” Those kinds of words sound strange, irresponsible even, to modern ears where self-protecting safety is seen as the highest virtue.

In parenting seminars, I will often ask parents to estimate how often in a year they tell their children to be careful and safe. Once they settle on an estimated number in their mind, I ask them to also estimate how many times in a year they challenge their children to be courageous, brave, bold, or to take an action for the sake of someone else that might put them in harm’s way. The response is almost always the same; they tell their kids constantly to be careful and safe, and rarely ever tell them to be self-sacrificially courageous and brave. There are enormous deleterious consequences in raising a generation of people who believe that there is nothing more important than their personal comfort and safety.

Many parents are aghast by thought of teaching their children that there are times they should put themselves in harm’s way and consider it inherently reckless. The distinction between recklessness and courage is an easy one to make. Recklessness has no higher purpose than the danger itself, whereas courageousness is self-sacrificial for a higher, others-centered, good. Courage is not the absence of fear; it is acting on the premise that there is something more important than fear. Or as the great American theologian, John Wayne, put it, “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway,” and I would add, saddling up for the self-sacrificial good of others.

Here are some simple suggestions for parents to help in raising courageous kids:

1. Start early

A toddler who hides behind a parent’s leg when someone speaks to them, or looks at the ground, may not simply be shy—it might be that they are selfish, lacking in others-centered courage and thinking more highly of themselves than they ought. As you discern this in your child, make it an issue—a discipline issue, if necessary. Train toward courage, and celebrate courageous actions, from the very beginning of child training.

2. You are not  special

Do not saddle your children with empty, yet feel-good, flattery about their inherent specialness. Teach them, that, yes, they are made in God’s image, but like you, they are ordinary, they have some strengths, and they have plenty of weaknesses as well. The real question is what they do with their strengths and weaknesses. Tell your children that inherent giftedness and intellect are overrated and overvalued. It is self-sacrificial courageous actions are truly special.

3. Courage is more important than your safety

Paul tells Timothy, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). Simply put, if the gospel is true, a safety-first, safety-centric worldview is a lie. A world where nothing is worth suffering and dying for is a world in which it is difficult to discern what is worth living for. Teach your children that love itself is an aggressive act that is often costly and demands courage. Defending the defenseless, speaking truth in love, and helping those in need, will often put them in harm’s way.

4. Just fight theory

Though this might seem disagreeable to some, I tell my sons that I do not only believe in just war theory, I also believe in just fight theory. For instance, if one of my sons is walking down the street with his sister and a boy walks up and tells her, “You are ugly, and I hate you,” and my son punches him in the nose, I would never say, “Don’t you ever hit anyone again, and I mean ever.” He may have overreacted to the situation, but his instinct to defend his sister is a good and right one, and it is my job as a parent to clarify both the good and the bad. I teach my sons to turn the other cheek when it involves them, but if someone harms their sister or mother, they need to be God’s instrument to turn that person’s cheek.

5. Celebrate courage and bravery

Make courage and bravery a major part of your family vocabulary. Read about and talk about courageous people in history. When your child does something that demands courage, celebrate it with a special meal or treat. Train toward courage. If your child does not naturally talk to people, assign them to initiate a conversation with five people at church each week, and hold them accountable to do it. At the end of the week, ask each family member to share something they did that week that they did not want to do in their gut, but they did it anyway because it was right and helpful to someone else.

To live as if nothing is more important than personal safety is to live an empty, selfish, and ultimately dissatisfying life. That kind of entitlement mentality only leads to self-referential pride and discontentment. Jesus is our model and embodiment of true self-sacrificial courage. His meekness was not weakness, his humility was not moral feebleness, and his courage was costly. No one can be both safe and large-hearted.

We often complain about the selfish culture, while at the same time teaching our children that nothing is more important than them and their safety. As C.S. Lewis observed, “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of the virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are ashamed to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” We dream about our children leading noble and courageous lives, while we train them daily toward cowardice.